Bible Text: Colossians 2:16-23 | Preacher: Steve Wakeford | Series: Grounded In Christ | There’s lots of things in life that can tempt us to think we can be closer to God if only we could do this or experience that - this part of the Bible pours cold water on that and tells us that in Jesus we’re as close to God as we ever need to be.
When I was just 18 and still at school, I had an old XC Falcon. That was 30 years ago this year! It looked all right, but after a couple of years of being driven like it was in ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ it looked a little worse for wear and it used almost as much oil as it did fuel. By then, I’d started working here in Mt Druitt as a Policeman and was earning my first decent wage. So, in my infinite teenage wisdom, I decided it was time to let go of the Falcon and buy a new car. I traded my old XC Falcon for a nearly new Nissan Pulsar Q.
I reckon the salesman thought all his Christmases had come at once when I walked into the Nissan dealership in Kingswood on the Great Western Highway, because it would have been totally obvious that I knew next to nothing about car dealers and what happens to 19 year old blokes who buy nearly new cars. He gave me $1,000 for the Falcon and the Pulsar was about $19,000 and I had no savings so I borrowed 18 Grand through the Dealer’s finance and had no idea what 16% interest would do. I drove home in my shiny, nearly new slightly effeminate car and I thought I was awesome. I didn’t look in the rear-view mirror when I left, but if I did, I’d have seen the salesman high-fiving everyone in sight and popping a bottle of Moet, absolutely delighted that I’d just made him salesman of the month!
Anyway, when all my mates from the Mountains saw my shiny, nearly new white Pulsar Q, oh, man, didn’t I cop some banter. And 30 years later, I can tell you that they still remind me of how ridiculous that trade was and if I’m honest, they’re completely justified. Who in their right mind would take $1,000 as a trade for an old Falcon on a Pulsar Q and borrow 18 Grand from a dealer? I should have done almost anything else, I should have saved some money for a year and bought a slightly better car for 5 grand and paid cash for it! I should have just kept driving the Falcon for another 5 years and then bought another one, I should have bought a horse! Anything other than make the trade I did that day.
I reckon most of us have done something similar over the years, it mightn’t have been trading an old car for a new car, it might have been something else, a boat or a motorbike or a new iPhone or whatever, but we’ve all probably been fleeced somewhere along the line by a sneaky salesman of some description and made a trade we shouldn’t have.
This is what Paul’s saying here to the Colossian Christians. There are people who want you to trade Jesus in for something else, either obedience to Jewish laws or some sort of higher spiritual experience or for harsh treatment of your body, thinking that those things will somehow get you closer to God than just sticking with Jesus. Paul says, “Don’t let anyone convince you that’s a good trade. It just isn’t! It makes as much sense as a dopey 19 year old bloke trading an old Falcon for a rubbish Pulsar Q!” Or, in the words of the current President of the United States, ‘That’s the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals!’
Now, you’ll notice that the passage we’re looking at starts with the word ‘Therefore.’ Whenever you read a ‘Therefore’ in the Bible, you need to ask yourself this question: ‘What’s it there for?’ The answer will always be whatever was said before it, and if you look at Colossians 2:13-15 you read this:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (NIV)
If you’re a Christian, this is the reality you live in. You and I were dead in our sin and God has made us alive through Christ Jesus. He forgave our sins and cancelled the debt we owed that we could not pay. Satan now has nothing to accuse us of or make us feel guilty with because our sin is gone. If you’re a Christian, that’s the reality we now live in, whether you’ve been a Christian for a week, a month, a year or 30 years. You’re free in Christ and you’re now a child of God.
So when you get to verse 16 and you read ‘Therefore’ remember whatever Paul says next hinges on that reality. Therefore - because this is true - don’t let anyone trick you into trading Jesus for anything else. Paul gives us three examples of stuff we might be tempted to trade Jesus for.
So, here’s the first bad trade we can be offered, trading Jesus for obedience to some Old Testament laws. Let's look at Colossians 2:16-17
Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (NIV)
The reality is that we’re free in Jesus, so don’t let anyone judge you by any sort of religious observance. That stuff doesn’t get you any closer to God than you are right now. But some of this stuff sounds like it might, doesn’t it?
I have a mate who doesn’t eat pork or shellfish and he’s not Jewish, he’s a Christian bloke, but he feels like he should obey some of the Old Testament food laws and yes, he’s a bit eccentric. We probably all know people who say that Christians shouldn’t drink. I don’t know anyone who goes out of their way to celebrate a new moon every 28 days, some of us might know some Seventh Day Adventist folks who are serious about keeping the Sabbath. Even if you add all those people up, it’s not much of a stretch to say that these issues aren’t really all that relevant in 21st Century Australia, but religious observance still is.
So, I’ll tell you a story that might illustrate it for us. I would have been 17 when this happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We were at night church and there were maybe 50-60 people there, heaps of us were teenagers. This young bloke walked in off the street and sat up the back and he would have been about the same age as most of us. He had a couple of earrings in his left ear, which means nothing now, but back in the 80s in the Blue Mountains, not many blokes had earrings. Anyway, he stayed for the whole service and a few of us went over and talked with him after church. He seemed interested in what was going on and liked that there were heaps of people his age at this church.
While we were talking to him, one of the older men at church came over. He’d been a Christian a long time and had been involved in the Billy Graham crusades, a solid Christian. Anyway, he came over and introduced himself to this young bloke, which was cool, but then he said, “You’re welcome back anytime son, only take those earrings out of your ear before you do.”
Like I said, it was the mid-80s and blokes wearing earrings in a conservative church just didn’t happen! The young bloke looked at us and turned around and walked out and we never saw him again.
For that older Christian man, he thought young Christian men should not have earrings and that’s fine, everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Where he went wrong was making his religious preference compulsory for that young bloke. There’s nothing in the Bible that would make anyone think that a bloke with earrings is cut off from God, but sadly, that older man’s words had that effect. Paul would say, ‘Don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or whether your ear is pierced on not, don’t let someone turn their religious preference into something compulsory, it simply doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know Jesus.’
These things, these religious observances, they’re a shadow of what was coming, not the reality, the reality is Jesus. He’s here, so now you don’t need any of this other stuff to be close to God. If you want to observe a Sabbath or not eat pork or not drink alcohol because you feel it’s what God wants you to do, that’s totally fine, just keep it to yourself. If you think young men shouldn’t have earrings, no dramas, keep it to yourself. But as soon as you make your opinions on these things compulsory you risk driving people away from Jesus, not inviting them closer and that’s a terrible thing to do and Paul won’t have it.
That first one is a stern-ish warning, but the second is a lot stronger. Colossians 2:18-19 tells us that ee might be tempted to trade Jesus in for some sort of higher spiritual experience.
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (NIV)
So, what sort of people is Paul talking about here? I reckon the ‘false humility’ bit is easy enough to understand, that’s people who try to sound like they’re being humble, but actually, they’re always boasting about how fantastic they are. I’ve been thinking about ‘the worship of Angels’ a lot over the past few weeks and I reckon I’ve misunderstood it for ages. See, I always read this as Paul saying ‘watch out for people who worship angels.’ But I think it means something else now. See, Paul is concerned about some people who were trying to teach the Colossians that there was some way, other than Jesus, for them to be closer to God. See, back in verse 8 he says,
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (NIV)
That’s a warning against trading Jesus in for some sort of man-made traditions and philosophies, thinking they’ll get you closer to God, they won’t.
Then, you’ve got verse 16 about those religious observances we just looked at and now there’s this idea of ‘the worship of angels’. I used to think that Paul was warning the Colossians against people who worshipped angels instead of worshipping Jesus. But really, it’s much more likely that someone was telling the Colossians that they should worship Jesus like the angels do, and if you want to get closer to God like they are, then you can join in with the angels and worship Jesus like them as well and have this higher super-spiritual experience.
Maybe that’s obvious to you and I’m just a bit slow, because when you get to verse 19 it’s even clearer. See, these people who worship like the angels do, well, they go into great detail about what they’ve seen and they’re not humble about it, they’re puffed up with idle notions but far from being super-spiritual and closer to God they’re the opposite! They’re unspiritual because they’ve lost connection with the head of the church, the Lord Jesus, Himself!
We have probably all met people like this. Youtube is full of stories about people who say they’ve been to Heaven or they’ve hung out with Jesus or they’ve had some sort of mystical experience worshipping God like the angels do, you can buy a thousand Christian books that talk about this sort of thing as well. Now, again, please don’t misunderstand what Paul’s saying here. There are some folks who have these sorts of experiences and I’m totally OK with that. Plenty of folks who become Christians from a Muslim background will tell you they met Jesus and that’s how they were saved or that they saw an angel in a vision who led them to Jesus or something like that. There are plenty of Christians I know who have the gift of speaking in tongues and who have quite extraordinary dreams and that sort of thing. That stuff is all legit and I have no drama with it and neither does Paul.
The problem comes when people who have these wonderful spiritual experiences make them compulsory for everyone else. ‘Oh, yes, it’s fine if you have Jesus, but we have Jesus plus these amazing spiritual experiences where we worship Jesus just like the angels in heaven do and if you could do that with us oh, wow, you’d be so much closer to God.’ And Paul says, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and this angelic worship experience disqualify you or drive you away from God. You have Jesus and that is enough. In fact, people who go on like that and make their experiences compulsory for everyone else, well, they’ve actually lost connection with Jesus.” And that’s a mighty serious warning.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of this. I know lots of people who can speak in tongues. I can’t and I’ve asked God for it and so far He’s said ‘No’ or ‘Not yet’. Some of my friends who can speak in tongues do so privately on their own or if they are with someone else who has the gift of interpreting tongues and that’s quite a legitimate use of that gift. They don’t make a song and dance about it and they don’t make other people like me who can’t speak in tongues, feel inferior.
But I know other people who can speak in tongues who tell me my Christian experience would be so much richer if only I had this gift like they do. They want to lay hands on me and pray over me and they tell me to stop resisting the Holy Spirit. It’s malarkey, but maybe you’ve had that experience and it’s left you feeling a bit inferior like you’re some sort of second class Christian. Paul would say, ‘You have Jesus, He is enough.’
Then there’s music! Oh, my goodness. Some of us like old hymns, some of us still think Graham Kendrick was the high point of Christian music, some of us like Hillsong, some of us have gone right off the reservation and we love Bethel or Elevation Worship and everyone is welcome to their preference.
And body language when we’re singing. Some of us keep our hands by our sides when we sing, some of us think that’s a bit radical so we keep our hands in our pockets when we sing, some of us like raising our hands in worship, we can do the ‘my fish was this big’ or the ‘are you serious, Ref?’ or the ‘Touchdown’. These are just preferences and are more often to do with our personality than anything else.
Paul would say, ‘Who cares? Have your preferences for songs and body language, no dramas at all, just don’t make your preference compulsory for everyone else! If you do that you’re in grave danger of arrogantly assuming you’re more spiritual than other Christians and if you do that, you run the risk of cutting yourself off from Jesus. So enjoy whatever music you prefer at home and you can dance or do whatever you want but when you’re here encourage the musicians and everyone else in church by singing your little heart out to Jesus to whatever song is on the screen.’
Don’t trade Jesus in for a particular spiritual experience thinking that will get you closer to God.
Then lastly, we’ve got a strange one, we might be tempted to trade Jesus in for some sort of harsh treatment of our body. Turn to Colossians 2:20-23
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV)
Normally, I’d illustrate this and explain it and apply it by encouraging all of us enjoy our freedom in Christ Jesus and I’d tell you that we shouldn’t be restrained by anything in terms of what we eat or drink or experience of life. I’d say that self-denial and self-control won’t get you closer to God. If I was preaching this sermon in the 1970s or 1980s that’s what I’d do.
But we’re not in the 70s or 80s now. We’re in 2019 in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet and no one in history has lived in the luxury and materialism we’re drowning in every day. If I’m honest, I can only think of a tiny number of people who need to hear that they should relax and enjoy life and stop denying themselves all the good things God has given them. I don’t know about you but I don’t know all that many Monks who have shut themselves away from the world in order to be closer to God. But I know literally thousands of Christians whose motto for life seems to be: ‘Touch everything! Taste everything! Handle everything!’
It’s that whole pendulum thing. When I was a kid, I always wanted to play cricket. But cricket was on Sunday. Mum and Dad wouldn’t let me play cricket because Sunday was church day. Church in the morning, lunch with apple juice, not wine, we were Baptists, then church again at night. They would hardly ever let me play cricket on the street with my mates on a Sunday let alone an organised sport! I was distraught every summer, but I learned that nothing was more important on a Sunday than to be in church. We were considered a ‘regular’ family in church. I was a ‘twicer’ that means we went to church twice each Sunday at 11am and 7pm plus Sunday school at 9am.
Fast forward 30 years and the pendulum has swung right out the other side. Heaps of my generation who grew up with that rather joyless version of Christianity have said, ‘We won’t do that to our kids.’ So we still have our regulars in church and they’re still called ‘twicers’. Only difference is, now that means twice a month not twice a Sunday. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone, how often you’re here is between you and God. What I am saying is, we’ve overreacted to the harsh and joyless self-denial sort of Christianity that marked the 1970s and 1980s, to the point that now it’s incredibly hard to tell who’s really a Christian and who’s not. Not just by who’s at church regularly but by so much of the rest of our lifestyle. What we wear, what we drive, what we drink, what we eat, what we do with our money, what we do with our time, how we raise our kids, what we think about God’s design for human sexuality, what we watch on the TV or our phones, what our language is like. If we’re honest, we don’t look that different to our friends who don’t know Jesus.
If we were living back in the 70s, I think Paul would be saying that you’re not going to get any closer to Jesus by self-denial and harsh treatment of your body, he’d say that all these wowsers who tell you not to touch or taste or handle anything really need to pipe down. But I reckon if he was here now he’d be more likely to say ‘OK, so some of you guys have really taken that thing I said earlier a bit too far! When I said you’re not going to get any closer to God by self-denial, I didn’t mean for you to think every week is Schoolies Week, so maybe a little self-denial isn’t a bad idea. I did tell you that self-control was part of the fruit of the Spirit in that other letter, remember!’
That magnificent human being, Colin Buchanan sang it like this:
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.
There’s a Father up above and He’s looking down in love, so be careful little eyes what you see.
Oh, be careful little ears what you hear
Oh, be careful little ears what you hear
There’s a Father up above and He’s looking down in love,
So be careful little ears what you hear.
Oh, be careful little feet where you go.
Oh, be careful little feet where you go.
There’s a Father up above and He’s looking down in love, so be careful little feet where you go.
So, friends, let’s not think we can get any closer to God by adding some sort of religious obedience to our faith in Jesus. Let’s not think we can get any closer to God by adding some sort of mystical spiritual experience to our faith in Jesus. But at the same time, we need to remember that occasionally denying ourselves some of the fleeting pleasures of 21st Century life in Sydney might not be such a bad idea, because none of us want our freedom in Christ to fool us into thinking we can live as we please and stay close to God.